Mother Jones on Catholics and the Death Penalty

posted by Adam (Southern California) on November 23rd, 2005

Here’s a good article from Mother Jones about how some otherwise politically conservative Catholics are getting involved in anti-capital punishment activism. I think there’s a tendency amongst leftists to think of the Church as being far too conservative and a tendency among right-wingers to think of the Church as being far too liberal. I hope that means we’re doing something right.

There is a mention made of how the Cathechism says that the death penalty is “permissible in rare cases when the safety of society is threatened,” and that some Catholics justify their support of capital punishment with a rather broad interpretation of that clause. I think it’s clear from the research that executing murderers in an otherwise civilized society is not necessary to maintain the safety of society. To argue otherwise is to say that we’re a culture that doesn’t trust our jails to separate criminals from society.

My standard for the applicability of the death penalty would be pretty high— I could imagine it in, say, a frontier colony or otherwise nascent society in which the confidence in the rule of law is low, but at the same time under these circumstances the certainty of guilt and the availability of alternatives must be considered.

The particular savageness of the crime shouldn’t really come into consideration, either, which I think is something a lot of people have trouble accepting. It is awfully tempting to say that, for example, the death penalty should be reserved for particularly ruthless criminals like the BTK Killer. But such men are readily constrained by our penal systems once they are caught and convicted, and we can also learn from them by studying their psychology. Or to put it theologically, the longer such a person spends in prison, the longer they will have to repent before being brought before Judgement.

The one place in our society where I could see the “safety of society” clause being applicable would be for someone whose influence could continue to harm society from within prison, like a mob boss or terrorist leader. But even then we must consider simply isolating the prisoner as a way to silence their influence. And we must also consider the “martyr phenomenon” — would executing Saddam Hussein, for example, rally his followers, or might it prevent them from helping him escape? Mustn’t we consider that the thought of him living as a common prisoner demoralizes his followers?

The article quotes a Catholic activist as saying that “to bring the debate back to what the Catholic Church believes is the core issue: not innocence, frailty, incompetence, or poverty, but mercy and forgiveness.” I agree. The notion of justice as far back as Hammurabi (yet refuted by Jesus) is “an eye for an eye,” and arguing that the founder of the Crips has somehow paid his debt to society (or is somehow worthy of a Nobel Prize nomination) by writing a few children’s books isn’t particularly persuasive in my book. If we argue only that the system is broken, or that an individual might have been wrongly convicted, or that it discriminates, then we are saying only that we are not achieving some sort of paradoxical “civilized” form of state-sponsored executions. The real argument is that the truly civilized society does not need executions.

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